When Death Comes Like a Friend

Even in the midst of grieving my Dad’s death this Thanksgiving Week, I wanted to tell you what I am thankful for this year. Because even in the midst of our family’s loss, there is one thing that I know we all agree on that we are thankful for this Thanksgiving.

But since I’m blogging, I thought I’d first share a few of the experiences of what it’s been like for me to be on “this side,” of the grieving/loss process Because it’s certainly been a first for me.

On The Other Side

I mean, I’ve done funerals for my Aunt, my great-Aunts/Uncles, other family members….and they’ve been tough…very tough. But walking through this time, as a Son, is a whole different ballgame.

As I always say to medical professionals (nurses, doctors, etc), or ministers, or therapists, or social worker who have lost their loved ones: “You probably know too much.”

You probably know too much, professionally, about the diseased your loved ones are suffering from. You know too much about what the stages of grief are like (at least, clinically). And, because each death is unique, and because their is not “textbook,” that’s going to make it tough for you to be a family member.

This is what I often say…to medical professionals…clergy…therapists…social workers….who are in the process of losing or grieving their loved ones.

“Pot, meet Kettle.”

All this came crashing in on me last Tuesday afternoon. I was standing in the midst of some graves at Sparkman-Hillcrest. But not my Father’s site. I was looking for our cousin, Joe Hefner’s grave; which, it turns out, is right around the corner from where Mom and Dad bought their sites.

It was late afternoon, the day after Dad died. I was running a check back by Sparkman. On the way out of our first meeting with them, she had asked the staff, “Do you all know where my cousin is?”

They’d told us the general location, but warned me that the grave would be hard to find. That did not dissuade me.

After all, I’m a professional, right? So, when I was back there later in the day, just before sunset, I found myself brushing leaves off of stone markers, looking for Joe’s name. (Turns out, there’s HUGE black headstone….if I’d just raised my eyes a bit, it would have taken me about 30 seconds to find…another parable…)

This was not a task I had to do that day. My Mother had explicitly told me, “We can look another day…”

But I was back there, so why not? It was information I could give my Mother, on a day that otherwise kind of sucked.

I’m looking down, and brushing the stones with my feet, when my phone buzzed. It was my friend, Frank Rahm. My friend since 10th grade. Now, my bandmate and Methodist-minister colleague. Presider at my Dad’s memorial service, at Dad’s request.

He was calling with a small question about the service itself. He was playing the role I usually play.

I told him where I was standing. I told him what I was doing. And perhaps he heard the anxiety and busy-ness in my voice? He said to me a platitude that I’ve used a hundred times:

“Eric, be sure and take care of you in all of this…”

I broke down. Tears came so thick, I just had to stand still for a minute, in a burry haze.

I told Frank the tears were complex. You see, that exact phrase is one I always use with families at a time like this. And inside of that phrase, there is sometimes something like a judgment in my head.

There is something like a place of privilege…as a minister…to be able to stand, detached and calm, and to say such things to a grieving family. But in my place of detachment, sometimes in my own head, when I speak this phrase to others, I am thinking: “Why can’t this grieving person see that they need to take care of themselves? Isn’t that obvious?”

Well, no, they can’t. That’s clear to me now. Crystal. And a part of my tears was the sudden realization of just how different this new path was that I suddenly found myself walking down.

Frank was using the exact same platitude I’d always used. Shit. And I was aware, in an instant, of how different it is to be on the sending and receiving sides of it.

Except it’s not really a platitude. It’s absolutely true….and their are moments when it’s absolutely impossible to hear..to take in…to believe…when you are a family member…

“Eric, be sure and take care of yourself in all of this…”

So, I’ll be off this Thanksgiving Week. Spending time with family. Spending time in both joy and grief. I went back to both the Church and to Sparkman alone on Saturday afternoon, because I needed some time alone in both places, to grieve in a way I couldn’t allow myself on Friday afternoon. Dick Folkerth’s son was going to hold it together during the service…and mostly did.

So, he took his own time yesterday. And it was so cathartic and good.

“Sorry For Your Loss”

One thing I’ve always known about speaking words of comfort to those who have lost loved ones is that it’s always kind of awkward for both sender and receiver.

It’s hard to know what to say, isn’t it?

The most common expression, by far, is “Sorry for your loss.”

Let me say quickly that I think it’s a perfectly fine expression. Because as the supportive friend/family, you are sorry. You are genuinely sorry. You’re just in a different place from the grieving person, and your sorrow is not, nor can it be, at the level of theirs. And that’s also perfectly normal. You’re not defective for relying on such a well-worn expression. It’s really about all any of us can say.

There’s a depth of grief and human emotion that goes far deeper than words can. These are times when words ring hollow. As an aside, I personally believe that this is what prayer is for. Prayer is for those times when our own words, to each other, feel too deep and hollow. We turn to The Divine Mystery, to connect with sighs that are too deep for words.

That’s what art and music are for too. Art and Music, like prayer, come from that place below words. Or above them. Or beyond them. (Or from beyond all spacial metaphors…) They come from the world of the Spirit. The world Jung called the “unconscious.”

Which is why, I am so convinced that there’s no such thing as non-spiritual art. But I digress into matters that can quickly cause flame wars….so….

I guess what I’m saying is: Thanks for all your kind words of concern and empathy. Your words have been lovely and kind. Thank you.

“A Good Death”

And all of this is really prologue to what I wanted to write to you about today….Thankfulness.

Because there’s another expression that I often use with families….and another one that too often feels (from my side) like a platitude. It’s the expression,

“They had a good death…”

Countless times, when a loved one has suffered long, or when they have an incurable disease, we eventually say: “They had a good death.”

And, again, it’s always felt a bit like a platitude.

So, what I’m here to share with you as Dick Folkerth’s son, is what all his family feels this week: Dad had a good death. And for this, we are thankful.

To many of you, perhaps it also seemed like a QUICK death too. In a sense, it was. In a sense, it was not.

Dad was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in 2011. For almost 2 ½ years, he lived without many symptoms at all. He’d get winded going up some stairs. That was about it.

So, Dad made the conscious choice to live life as normally as possible. As I wrote in another blog, Dad did not want to be an “identified patient.” He didn’t want folks constantly asking after him.

His natural inclination was to never be the center of attention (Always the photographer. Rarely in the shot…) And so, Dad would have been deeply uncomfortable with any more attention than he got. Not only that, but it’s clear to me now that it might have made his condition worse.

slide rule - 1
Dad’s College Slide Rule. Now reunited with his old desk at my house.

And lest you worry that *we* needed more attention as his family, I think we’d all say that it was our great hope to give Dad exactly what he wanted. Everyone deserves to retain the power of choice over their own lives as long as they can. And that even applies, as much as possible, to the way they depart this earth. So, that was our focus, and I know we are all pleased to have fulfilled Dad’s wishes in this.

Especially in the church, we can sometimes kill people with kindness. I’m not saying that the kindness causes their death. But Edwin Friedman, the therapist and rabbi was right: families and congregations like to have an “identified patient.”

“They” are the sick one. “We” are not. So, we just put our fear of death and sickness onto them.
See, Dad never said anything like the previous. But he lived it. He wanted to, and did, live as normally as he could these past few years. And God bless him for keeping that control.

It makes it seem sudden to you, and I get that, and am sorry for it if it’s troubling. But it wasn’t sudden to him or us.

Dad used his time well, to put his affairs in order. The over-engineerer had everything planned out well for Mom and for us. It’s all good.

But! The very end was also quick….even for us.

That morning, Dad was just meeting his hospice nurse (the regular weekly one) for the first time. She was quite caught off guard when he died during their first meeting.

We were too.

He’d just been told that much of his control was going was gone. He was going to be, essentially, bed ridden. And he would have hated that. He would have hated days, weeks, or months, in the bed.

And so, he died, just a few moments after getting that word for the nurse.

And while you can never “prove” that he controlled or orchestrated such a planned departure…We all know that we can’t put it past him. (We all believe that his mother did a similar thing too, btw…)

As for me, as a minister and someone who has seen deaths from pulmonary fibrosis before, you need to know that I’ve been pre-dreading and pre-grieving his death since 2011.

When Bill McElvaney died? When Bill Warrick, Charles Delphenis and Mike Pybas died? (Saints of Northaven, who all died around the same year…) What none of you could have known is that I was already pre-grieving my Father’s death, alongside of them. I knew then that this day was coming. And I’ve been silently carrying it in my heart for these past three years. It’s been like a radio static, in the background of every day of my life since then.

So….

When the end came…
When it wasn’t the horrible, suffering exit I have been fearing my Father (and us) would experience for, for the past three years…

I was thrilled.

I know thrilled seems like a bizarre word to use. I guess you’d just have to be in my head, and sit with the dread and fear of what I thought would happen, but did not.

So, friends, yes. There is such a thing as a good death. My Dad had one. And for this, during this Thanksgiving Week, I am so grateful.

Life never ends. Death is not the final word. Nothing is lost in the universe or in time. Death comes to all of us. As I told Dad some weeks ago, none of us get out of this life alive. He laughed, because he knew it in his heart.

It was more than a platitude.

All those you love, and I love, will die. Death and suffering, as the Buddha knew so well, is baked in to the fabric of existence. If we are blessed enough to get to love other human beings, we will eventually get the blessing of grieving them. Or they us. That’s the way love works.

As I got to tell Dad a few days ago, it was a privilege to finally be able to help him at the end, for him to allow us to do so. I thanked him, for letting us help him.

And this reminds me of another great “Death Cab for Cutie” song, that I’ve been carrying around with me for several years. It was one I’d planned to feature in a blog, while Dad was in hospice. But he wasn’t in hospice long enough. So, it kind of fits here, anyway. I had to listen to this song about three times, before I realized the perspective and what is happening. But the key line (which you will know when you hear it) is achingly beautiful and true….

It’s an honor, privilege, and an act of love to walk with some one through their death. And, with my Dad, we are thankful for a good one.

I was trying to think of what song to close this blog with, and it dawned on me…. “O yeah…I wrote that song…”

So, while it feels a bit self-promotional, this line is this, in a song of mine that I always think of this time of year:

“At time when death comes like a friend,
And trusting like can never end,
It’s well, then,
That I will give thanks.”

This is from a song of thanks I wrote, some years back, where I tried to start with simple things in the first verse, and work my way to the complex, being thankful for death, in the third. So, enjoy the video below…from when I weighed a few more pounds, and had hair.

I look back on writing that song now. The me-then, who wrote what line, couldn’t have possible known how true it was.

And so, for a good death, this Thanksgiving, we give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

(And if you have lots of spare time, and had an engineer Dad yourself, you might check out my loooong remembrance of our relationship, here.)

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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